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CompuServe Ends Access Suspension

Internet: It reopens all but five adult-oriented newsgroups. Parents can now block offensive material.

February 14, 1996|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Reversing a decision that had outraged many denizens of Cyberspace, CompuServe on Tuesday reinstated access to all but five of about 200 adult-oriented Internet newsgroups that had been suspended in response to an investigation of online pornography in Germany.

But it also gave parents the ability to block offensive material, adopting a practice already embraced by services such as America Online and Prodigy. The parental-control program allows all users to restrict access to questionable Internet forums on their own at no extra charge.

"The idea is to put control in the hands of the user. We think that's something the industry can get behind," said Jeff Shafer, a CompuServe spokesman.

Free-speech advocates welcomed the news.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

Access to more than 200 newsgroups was temporarily restricted in December after state prosecutors in Bavaria, Germany, notified CompuServe of an investigation of distributors of sexually explicit material on the Internet. Newsgroups are computer forums where users can post material, including text, pictures and sound.

CompuServe, saying it did not have the technology to block access in a specific geographic location, suspended access for all of its 4.3 million users.

"We have always said the position we took was a temporary position, and we have been in talks with the industry as well as with legal counsel," Shafer said Tuesday. "We believe this is a position people will receive favorably."

The remaining five suspended newsgroups focus on pedophilia and are considered illegal in Germany, the United States and other countries, Shafer said. Topics on the reinstated newsgroups included bestiality and sexual fetishes.

Shafer said German authorities had been notified of CompuServe's decision.

Gerhard Zierl, spokesman for the Bavarian Justice Ministry in Munich, said the investigation is still open and that prosecutors are waiting for a report from the state police before deciding whether to file charges.

He said investigators will take CompuServe's latest steps into consideration but added: "It certainly will be CompuServe's responsibility if these newsgroups with content that is illegal under German law are made available again. What the prosecutors will do then, I can't say."

Observers of the burgeoning information network say the debate over computer access to controversial subjects proves the difficulty of doing business in cyberspace, an international marketplace with conflicting interests and few rules.

"Companies that want to do business internationally are at a loss to deal with the political and cultural differences," said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a Bethesda, Md.-based research company that specializes in interactive services.

But the lawyer for a San Francisco-based group that advocates Internet freedom said that's the cost of doing business.

"We take the position that these systems are in many respects like bookstores and libraries," said Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "They are not responsible for content, but they are allowed to make choices about what to carry."

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